Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

Charles Gross - Blue Sunshine O.S.T.

Charles Gross
Blue Sunshine O.S.T.

Released 1976 on Synapse Reissue
Reviewed by aether, 07/10/2012ce

Charles Gross - Blue Sunshine O.S.T. (1976)

"Did you ever hear the words Blue Sunshine?...try to remember, your life may depend on it..." (Poster tag-line for Blue Sunshine)

In the late seventies America was in trouble – economically, socio-culturally, psychologically and perhaps most importantly of all, spiritually. A dark and seemingly impenetrable fog of malaise had descended on the country’s young adults, like a spectre haunting from their own near past. Yes, the sixties decade was finally exacting its toll on the nation’s youth – a delayed reaction to a decade of large-scale hedonism and a (sometimes) irresponsibly-led (hi Tim!), so-called ‘progressive’ ideological abandon. If the more immediate and realer problem of a national economy in tatters wasn’t enough, the large-scale socio-cultural and psychological ‘experiments’ of the late sixties (in particular, the widespread use and abuse of LSD) coupled with the physical and mental fallout of an all-too-recent war, lost, in Vietnam, haunted the nation’s youth to the point of insanity.

Pop-cultural forms of the period couldn’t help but articulate (consciously or sub-consciously) the turmoil of the time – identity crises, masculine crises, economic crises, it was a morass of crises, personal and social. One film dealing with this issue head-on (albeit to some extent in an allegorical capacity) was Jeff Lieberman’s Blue Sunshine (1976) – a film about a certain bad acid (the titular Blue Sunshine) that – a decade later – has the effect of turning people into psychotic murderers.

Not a great film, Blue Sunshine does, however, have an intriguingly impressive musical score by Charles Gross, a largely unknown, or at least uncelebrated, composer who has worked in Hollywood for some time. Gross’ first move was to pick a great instrumental palette for his score including orchestral strings and brass, but also synthesiser and what sounds like Gamelan percussion and mucho xylophones. Track One (the tracks have no title, the score being released for the first ever time on Synapse DVD’s double-disc presentation of the film without titles) begins amidst ritualistic Gamelan chimes and a screeching, wheezing synthesiser spooling out a wearisome Theremin-like melody, like some aged ghost descending a cavernous dungeon staircase, as the Javanese percussion shines and circles around it – things slowing to a crawl only to be eviscerated by extremely tense Herrmann-like strings, as the melody begins again – this time adding cool Rhodes piano to the mantric hypno-rhythm.

Track 2 is a short cocktail hour jazzy piece – all bumbling bass, xylophone solos and paper-thin flutes. Track 3 couldn’t be different as were thrown into a thunderous tumult of gutsy Penderecki strings and drum rolls aplenty. Brass strikes like a hammer blow and then floods of abstract xylophone like running water – more slamming Horror blasts of brass and ice-like strings until a sub-bass and Halloween-like line interrupts the chaos. Track 4 begins amidst Magma-type foreboding Rhodes and rattled childlike xylophones – more tribal gamelan percussion and atmospheric percussion devices – the Exorcist soundtrack is perhaps a good comparison here – if it had been written by Magma and Shub Niggurath. More synthesiser and sheets of metallic percussion throb and pulsate – leading us into darker territories. The clanging, repetitive, almost hypnotic nature of the Gamelan-like devices really work here, as tribal drum beats and occasional blasts of brass bring a certain power musically speaking.

Track 5 is another hypnotic pulsation through the darker avenues of your mind – it’s a power that seems to seep from the music, like some degenerate cancerous spirit. The music is dark, like jade, but alluring too. Mad piano runs finish the track as it mutates into some strange easy listening piece, only to return with a certain progressive maturity, with gothic runs on the organ, similar to Jacula or other Italian-occult progressive rock acts of the early 70s. Of course the chaos here is meant to represent the chaotic minds of the film’s protagonists.

The tracks continue – strange little vignettes of sound, in which cauldrons of sound bubble and spit – always the ever-present clanging percussion (like ceramic plates being struck with bones), the deep, sonorous sub-bass synths, the ritualistic rattling of strings and the strange, clawing violins (like rats scurrying about the track), the twinkling miniature percussive devices and the wheezing synthesisers. All coalesce to create an endearingly dark sonic tableau of sound. Simple, but tense, piano notes, repeat over and over again, as dark shadowy shapes of brass congeal in the background. Kaleidoscopic reveries of musical box tinkling repeat under the woozy, see-sawing synthesiser and string melodies.

Then suddenly, a female vocal track that shifts into a Tony Bennett-like Las Vegas romp. This is followed by “Disco Blue” which begins with a proto-ESG minimal funk piece with tendrils of spacey guitar and a rudely clipped Earth Wind & Fire bass, and vocals echoed out of their tree. But the celebrations are soon over as the dread, damp, dank percussion begins again, amidst glassy keyboards beating out a simple two-note riff, before huge brass claws rip it too shreds. Dizzy strings and parping gut-level brass then beat out an ever-tensing melody.

To close, a clamorous schoolroom piano echoes the same two chords, as the Rosemary’s Baby-like melody crawls over them like some murderous infant hell bent on revenge. More eviscerating strings leap from nowhere fighting for space with some deft bongo beats and swooping strings and brass; glassy Rhodes piano enters the fray giving the whole vibe a Magma-conducted-by-Bernard Herrmann gusto.

The smoothly sonorous, yet coldly visceral, aural qualities of the analogue synthesisers, Gamelan-like percussion (possible a real Gamelan kit), orchestral strings and brass sections, sundry assortments of hand percussion and Rhodes and Grand pianos really impress. The musical content – in particular the melodic and harmonic content – of this score is rather simple and repetitive, and with that lies part of its strength. However, most impressive is the associations of instrumental timbre that Gross draws upon for his score. It’s a dark, seething, beguiling, simpering, rare jewel of a score which seems to pulsate with a dark glowing, mystical energy at times.

Although quite individual (especially for a seventies Horror score), its nearest stylistic predecessor is definitely Wil Malone’s Death-Line soundtrack, although some other similarities can be found with Goblin, Magma, Shub Niggurath, Sweden’s Rena Rama (but largely their use of Gamelan) and, more obviously, the late Modernist abstraction of Penderecki, George Crumb, Anton Webern et al.

So, did you ever hear the words Blue Sunshine? Try to remember, your life may depend on it!

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